Last weekend, I attended Feldcon, a one-day board gaming event where we played nothing but Stefan Feld’s games. I had never played a Feld before, but I figured if someone liked him enough to have a whole convention, he must be pretty good. I carefully prepared by reading the rules to Macao and Castles of Burgundy — but I didn’t end up playing either of them.
I think Feld is good, but mostly his games weren’t for me. Still, I learned something about what I like in games, and that’s valuable. I had been slowly working on designing a more Euro-style game, and now I have a stronger sense of what sort of play I want to encourage.
In all of games I played, there were multiple ways to score. I do like games that have multiple viable strategies, so this should have been appealing (and in fact it often was). But one play was not really enough to learn to keep track of all of them (in some of the games), or figure out which I should be focusing on. Can you win at Bruges without touching your canal? I don’t know, but I sure didn’t!
Bora Bora: A clever action selection mechanism: each player rolls three dice, then takes turns placing the dice on various actions. Higher numbers are more powerful, but you can’t place a higher numbered die after someone has placed a lower number on a given action. The game had a lot of bits: cards, tiles for women, men, tasks, jewelry, resources, fish, offerings and turn order, along with dice, (cardboard) shells, and various wooden pieces. There was a satisfying variety of actions, but I found it a bit overwhelming to pay attention to all of the ways to score. I guess a second play would have helped here. It didn’t seem reasonable to put together a coherent strategy up front, because the dice and opponents’ plays could easily screw it up. Being forced to react to changing circumstances is something I like. This was probably my second-favorite of the games, although I think with more play, Trajan might displace it.
Trajan. The key innovation of Trajan is the Mancala-like action selection mechanism. Mastering this mechanic would allow more planning about what actions to take, but it seems like a pure computation exercise. I guess that could be fun — in theory, portions of my game-in-progress, Loading Zone, are like that. Unlike Loading Zone, you might want to explore a broader tree for Trajan’s Mancala, since you might want to be able to react to your opponents’ choices. Still, the Mancala thing was neat, which counts for a lot in a first play-through.
Strasbourg was my favorite of the games I tried. It’s got an all-pay auction mechanic that I really dug. As a first-time player, I managed to screw up and make one of my goals impossible in turn one — I didn’t realize that I would need to win every meat auction. I wonder if somehow moving the goal choosing later in the game would reduce the variance. But maybe if I were a stronger player, I would have chosen more goals and been less sad about losing one.
In the Year of the Dragon. A disaster aversion game. It turns out that I really don’t like games where you can end up in an unwinnable state and then have to sit there losing for the rest of the game. That didn’t happen to me; I did get a little screwed but mostly lost through some poor choices. But it was even painful to watch it happen to another player. I’m OK building something that’s less than optimal (but still scoring some points). And I’m OK with getting destroyed. But if I’m getting destroyed, I want it to be over quickly. In a two-player game, I can just resign, but Feld’s games seem mostly to be intended for three or more.
Bruges. Another disaster aversion game, although less so. The push-your-luck aspect made disaster aversion much more painful; it feels hideously unfair when you were playing pretty cleanly but just rolled the wrong six. Worse, there was one card which was basically a “screw your neighbor” (and another which made one player much more resilient), each of which seemed to dramatically change the game. The game seemed to want me to primarily build my canal and only secondarily recruit people, but the people were so much more interesting than the canal. I never seemed to have enough actions; each (4-action) turn you can actually recruit fewer than one person on average, since you will gain 1⅔ threat tiles and you need at least 3 actions (half of a worker-creation, one house, at least half of a money-action, the person) to recruit. I know that making hard choices is the essence of gaming, but I wanted to feel like I had lots of good choices, instead of having to constantly spend all of these interesting people I could be living with.
Across all of Feld’s games, I liked the multiple small decisions (especially in the rare cases where they were decisions under uncertainty). I generally liked the feeling of abundance — there are lots of things I could do! The two games I liked least had less of the abundance feeling, unsurprisingly. But because it was generally hard to choose actions (because I had to fuck around with Mancala stones, or hire workers, or have the right dice), it was hard to build up a strategy. The only choice was to be mostly reactive. By the “abundance of actions” metric, I think Bora Bora was the strongest of the games I played, followed closely by Trajan.
Overall, I’m super-glad I spent nearly twelve straight hours playing these games, because I know I’ll be thinking about them for a long time.